Flood of Fire- book review

The Opium War is one of the most famous episodes in modern Chinese history, being the moment when China realized how feeble it was compared to the British who thrashed it in battle and forced it to open up its ports to Western traders. This came as a rude shock, putting it mildly, to the Chinese and their ruling Manchurian Qing Dynasty, and even after well over one and a half centuries, it still hasn’t been forgotten by the Chinese. Hong Kong owes its existence and prosperity to this war, because it was officially handed over to the British after the war under whom it changed from a small fishing village to the financial hub it is today.

Flood of Fire is the third and final book in Amitav Ghosh’s epic Opium War trilogy that spans India and China and features an eclectic cast of Indian, Chinese and British characters. The book sees the outbreak of the Opium War as the British launch an attack on the ruling Qing Dynasty over its ban on opium imports. As Guangdong is attacked, Hong Kong is captured and the Qing are humbled by the British navy and army, characters on all sides strive to exploit their differing situations. There are Parsi businessmen, British merchants and officers, an American sailor, Bengali soldiers, Chinese Tanka boat people, and Cantonese.

The trilogy began with a ship, the Ibis, which set sail from India in the mid-19th century with a diverse group on board, including runaways, fugitives and nobles, who dispersed after a mutiny mid-voyage. The bulk of these characters made their way to Hong Kong and Guangdong, which by then was the only point of exchange between Western merchants and China. Opium was the main import from Western and Indian businessmen, which as most of us know, caused a lot of anger among Chinese officials. But that is because many Chinese enjoyed this narcotic so much that addiction became a scourge (something that few Chinese accept responsibility for). A powerful Chinese official, Lin Zexu, (who is revered as a national hero in modern China) soon orders a ban on opium imports and burns a huge load of opium in public, bringing about hostilities that lead to a declaration of war from the British.

With such a large cast, it can be confusing at times, especially as there are several plotlines going on simultaneously, involving both sides. But most of these plots are interesting enough, though the conclusion ties them together a bit too neatly.

Indian-born Bengali Amitav Ghosh is probably my favorite novelist after I read Glass Palace, one of his novels which spanned Burma and India during the British colonial period. Ghosh has a gift for writing sweeping novels set across different but places, especially South Asia, during major historical events like the Opium War in this case, Partition (of British India into India and Pakistan), and the conquest of Burma by the British. Other books of his that I’ve enjoyed include Hungry Tide, a contemporary novel about a scientist studying Bangladesh’s vast Sundurban wetland, and this Opium War trilogy. His most recent book The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable is not a novel, but a work of non-fiction, examining how climate change threaten a lot of countries, especially through global warming and unpredictable weather changes such as rising sea levels that can put coastal cities and settlements at risks.

Asia links – reality check on China, HK dialects, and Amitav Ghosh interview

There are two kinds of common articles about China – those that criticize it and those that praise it and portray it as the next superpower. This article is one of the former but it directly takes on the latter. It’s an excellent read that slams so-called China pundits from America who usually glorify China and take its impressive-sounding “facts” and achievements at face value. I’ve been very critical of China over the past year, to my disappointment, and not surprisingly, I think there’re a lot of very valid points here. I have to admit I know the writer who works in Beijing, and he’s a very knowledgeable guy. The article is definitely on the spot.

Hong Kong is a pretty diverse society, even among its Chinese population, which isn’t a widely known fact. So while Cantonese is the dominant language, there are several dialects spoken by “minority” Chinese groups such as Tanka, the “boat people,” Hakka, which half of my family is, and Teochew. HK Magazine has an interesting article detailing all these dialects.

The Guardian does an interview with Amitav Ghosh, my favorite author who has just finished the third in his trilogy about the Opium War, Flood of Fire. The trilogy started in India then proceeded to Guangdong, China, where the opium trade was in full bloom until Chinese authorities tried to clamp down on it and the British instigated a conflict, the first of the so-called Opium Wars.

China reads

Almost as if on cue for my upcoming trip, I read 3 books about China recently.

Wolf Totem won the inaugural Man Asian Literary Prize in 2007 for the best Asian novel that hadn’t been published in English. Well, it went on to be published in English after the win, and it turned out to be a surprisingly fluid and sentimental novel. Set in the Inner Mongolian* grasslands in the seventies, it’s about a young Chinese who becomes obsessed with wolves who act as both gods and demons on the plains. They’re revered by the native Mongols who pay homage to them and regard them as deities, hence the book’s title, whilst at the same time they ravage the horse and sheep herds of these same Mongols. This constant battling plays a big role in the Mongols’ lives, who spend a lot of time protecting their herds from these predators and hunting them. This state of affairs is essential to the land as the wolves’ predation limits the amount of herd animals, as well as wild gazelles and marmots, preventing their grazing from killing off the grass and causing desertification. In addition, the wolves are cunning and loyal, hunting in packs and using tactics that exploit land, weather and animal behavior. Beijinger Chen Zhen, the main character, becomes so filled with reverence for the wolves that he decides to raid a wolf den and capture a cub and raise it. He succeeds but not ultimately. What makes the book so good is how informative it is about the grassland’s ecology without being pedantic. The author based this book and the main character on his own experience in the grasslands where he spent 11 years and it shows in the grasp of detail about the environment, the culture and ecology of that place. There is a bit of excessive piousness regarding the nomadic grassland Mongol way of life, which Chen constantly contrasts with the more passive and environmentally-harmful way of the Chinese peasant lifestyle. This is why the fearsome Mongol horsemen were able to defeat vastly numerically superior foes including China’s Song Dynasty back then in the time of Genghis Khan and his immediate descendants, Chen reasons as he realizes how the Mongols got their superior war knowledge from fighting the wolves all the time. Yet for all that, the agriculturalists usually win out over the nomads, as China was able to absorb much of Mongolia, hence Inner Mongolia. Towards the end, not to spoil it, but it is not a good ending for the nomads and their way of life as Chinese settlers are brought in to raise livestock on the rich grasslands and modernity gradually creeps in. It is haunting to see how prescient the wise Mongol elder who Chen regards as a father is about the dangers of overgrazing and desertification. In real life, China is suffering an alarming amount of desertification including in that same area, among which one of the effects is Beijing being blanketed by dust storms from time to time. Wolf Totem is definitely more than about Mongols and wolves.

Initially I didn’t like how Jung Chang’s Mao-The Unknown Story (cowritten with Jon Halliday) was going. I’d heard about this book when it came out in 2005 and I knew it was very critical about Mao, but it seemed like every sentence and paragraph was filled with derision and criticism about Mao, some of it contradictory. He wasn’t smart, he didn’t stand for anything, he lied, he was a coward, he was a tyrant etc. But it’s also filled with some explosive statements and it’s filled with a ton of interesting and provocative information. Some famous events such as the Long March and the Xian Incident (when Chiang Kai-shek was kidnapped by a Xian warlord supposedly to force Chiang to agree to talks with the Communists in order to deal with Japanese invaders) are revealed by Chang to be not what they seemed. And for other famous events like the Cultural Revolution, the Great Leap Forward and the Korean War, Chang reveals Mao to be exactly the kind of crazed tyrant for whom the lives of Chinese citizens meant nothing and who bullied and took revenge on peers regularly. It’s not like I wasn’t aware of these events and of Mao’s immense faults, but this book made me learn a lot more. Chou Enlai, the suave foreign minister and the number two, was a toady who was intimidated and controlled by Mao, Liu Shaoqi, the president until he was purged and imprisoned, was a man of some not so insignificant conscience who stood up to Mao and paid for it, and Deng Xiaoping was a tough and pragmatic survivor who was crushed by Mao but still endured.  I’m still mystified though as to how millions of Chinese were able to get out of poverty during Mao’s time given the tremendous upheavals and food shortages that occurred, and I still can’t help think there’s more to Mao than this, or at least his rule. * Update: This book was heavily criticized by experts including for probable dubious sources, simplification of Mao’s rule and definite bias. Despite this, nobody disputes the main point- that Mao was ruthless and callous and many people died and suffered under him.

It seems like everybody is going to China these days and writing about it. Days like Floating Water is about a retired American who volunteers with her also retired husband to go to a small town near Ningbo and teach English in a technical institute. It doesn’t sound like much, but it was a pleasant read, and the couple taught in China back in 1999, eight years before the book was published. The McKees do rather well, living and teaching in a small town where the only other foreigners were a handful of fellow English teachers and where buying stuff requires an hours-long bus trip. This is 1999, when China’s economic boom was still in the early stages but the fast pace of China’s modernization drive is apparent enough. During the McKees’ stay, they get a new home and at the end, their school is transformed into a brand-new university. I’m not exactly a big fan of the notion that breakneck transformation is always positive though. The two Americans, more specifically the writer, become really attached to their students, inviting them to come after classes (which many do) and starting up new projects. Doubtless, they face lots of challenges from home plumbing inanities to braving the famous China lining up experience to obstinate bureaucracy. It’s a decent book written with a lot of tenderness and heart.

* Inner Mongolia is one of China’s autonomous regions and is just across the border from the nation of Mongolia which is sometimes referred to as Outer Mongolia.

Ha Jin’s Waiting

Waiting is the novel that really made Ha Jin well-known in North America. Since he wrote Waiting in 1999, which won the US National Book Award for Fiction, Chinese-born American Ha Jin has written several novels as well as his most recent book, a collection of short stories on Asian immigrants. I heard about this book back in my college days many years ago but I wasn’t too interested, however I borrowed it recently because it’s the only English-version Ha Jin book the library here carries that I haven’t read. Waiting is about an Chinese Army doctor who wants to divorce his wife after having fallen in love with a nurse in the hospital he’s based in. The catch is that to do so, his wife needs to agree in court and she is reluctant to do so, understandably. Even when he manages to get her to come with him to their village court, she’s unable to actually give her consent and the doctor usually gets a stern lecture from the judge about family values. This goes on for 18 years while the doctor’s girlfriend bears it, though not without a lot of anger and grief. While I don’t want to give away much, I’ll say the doctor isn’t as selfish or his wife as stubborn and spiteful as they seem. The prose is nice, though Ha’s Chinese background is obvious with there being some awkward grammar and a few things I would have changed if I was the editor. The story takes place in Northeast China and it does well to illustrate the nuances of Chinese society and culture, especially the values and what I would say, restrictions. However, the main theme – that of putting one’s happiness and satisfaction before other obligations, to family, society, and so on, and whether it’s worth it – is one that is probably a universal one and not something that just happens in China. It’s taken me a long time to finally read this but I’m glad.

I recently finished Sea of Poppies, a novel about a random set of people on a ship transporting Indian indentured servants to Mauritius during the mid-nineteenth century just before the Opium War between the British Empire and China breaks out. It’s the latest novel by Amitav Ghosh, the author of one of my favorite books The Glass Palace, so I was really looking forward to reading it. Unexpectedly, it was a little slow and disappointing at the beginning as the book took too long introducing the different characters and progressing to the main plotline, but it got better as it developed. The constant use of a dialect – that spoken by the lascars or sailors from all over South and Southeast Asia- made things difficult, even with a detailed dictionary in the back. Towards the end, things really picked up and the ending left me really wanting to read the sequel. Like all of Ghosh’s other books, this one is strongly rooted in historical and social themes, especially social inequality, cultural diversity and colonialism. Two of the more compelling characters are the widow running from a troubled family past and the Indian nobleman or Raja being cut down (figuratively) from his lofty status by the British.

Sea of Poppies is the first in an intended Ibis (the name of the ship) trilogy. It got a lot of acclaim, including being shortlisted for the 2008 Booker Prize, but I still prefer The Glass Palace by far.

The recently-finished Shanghai Int’l Literary Festival sure seemed like it would have been worth a visit, with authors like Junot Diaz,Tash Aw and Su Tong having made appearances. Shanghaiist has several posts profiling different authors, with each offering his take on something about China, including its growing soft power and prestige in Southeast Asia, the breakneck pace of development and the questions of identity and authenticity in writing. The last link features a writer who really is a global Chinese nomad, whom I don’t come close to in terms of global moves despite my several locations, and who writes while maintaining a full-time IT career. Interestingly enough, Asne Seierstad, female Norwegian writer and war correspondent who wrote Angel of Chechnya (reviewed by me), was there too.